REPUBLICAN Senator John McCain has delivered a stinging rebuke to US President Donald Trump by unveiling his own strategy for America’s military success in Afghanistan. The former presidential candidate’s avowal that “America is adrift in Afghanistan” cannot be faulted.
Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Trump have all contributed to making a mess of the conflict in Afghanistan — largely because of their inaction, miscalculations and shifting strategies. For reasons best known to him, Bush fell for the murky advice that the mission would be accomplished within weeks.
Under his watch, the CIA dished out bags of dollars to anti-Taliban commanders and political figures, but their fickle loyalties did not help the US military in any perceptible manner. His muddled approach saw American soldiers perilously slide into mission creep and take unexpectedly high casualties.
After his inauguration in January 2009, president Obama repeatedly pledged a responsible end to the military campaign that he billed as a good war. During his two terms in office, incremental progress was achieved in raising and training the Afghan National Army (ANA) and police.
He pushed 30,000 troops into Afghanistan by mid-2010 and began to pull them out by July 2011. The withdrawal time frame was announced despite Pentagon’s reservations. To allay concerns, he agreed that the pace and endpoint of the pullout would be determined by the ground conditions. While exploring ways of getting out of the Afghan quagmire, Obama grudgingly gave his commanders the resources they required to avoid an outright failure. Many Afghanistan watchers were stunned when he announced ending US involvement in active combat by 2014.
Will his proposal turn the Afghan tide?
In the twilight of his second term, Obama sensed the inefficacy of his shifting timelines. He had to lift restrictions on air support and halt further withdrawals. Promises apart, the then president could not wind down the war, much less sow the seeds of peace, before he left the White House.
Seven months into his tenure, Trump is yet to announce his policy on ending the longest war in US history. In an effort to escape blame for America’s apparent defeat, he has authorised Defence Secretary James Mattis to set troop levels in Afghanistan.
US Commander Gen John Nicholson, who Trump wants to sack, has demanded up to 5,000 additional troops to train Afghan military and police personnel. His proposal, however, is being resisted — tooth and nail — by some presidential aides, who see no point in sending more troops into an intractable war.
Spurred on by Blackwater founder Erik Prince, the Trump White House is reportedly weighing a plan to privatise the war. Prince has suggested sending 5,500 private mercenaries to Afghanistan to advise the ANA and deploying a private air force to conduct a bombing blitz against insurgents.
Escalating attacks by Taliban, Al Qaeda and militant Islamic State group fighters have led Trump to acknowledge the unpalatable reality that the US is losing the war. A more accurate assessment is that Washington has already been beaten, as the insurgents have captured more territory and the US-trained Afghan forces have yet to make their presence felt.
Perturbed by Trump’s dithering, McCain declared on Thursday that America is adrift in Afghanistan. The word adrift is perhaps not an apt choice, as far as the sorry state of affairs in the conflict-devastated country is concerned.
Also the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Arizona senator has reason to stress on stringent conditions for continued assistance to Afghanistan. Indubitably, Kabul needs to demonstrate measurable progress in curbing corruption, strengthening the rule of law and improving financial transparency. “The thousands of Americans putting their lives on the line in Afghanistan deserve better from their commander-in-chief,” remarked McCain, who will seek a Senate vote on his strategy for success in Afghanistan next month.
The crux of the influential lawmaker’s strategy is a long-term, open-ended Afghan-US partnership that includes an enduring American counterterrorism presence and expanding training assistance to the local security forces. The proposed measures can be helpful to some extent, but there is no guarantee they will turn the tide.
However, his call for stepping up diplomatic efforts to expedite a negotiated peace process in Afghanistan in cooperation with regional partners is welcome. Pleas for mounting pressure on Pakistan to stop providing safe havens to the Taliban and Haqqani Network are eerily familiar.
Pakistan, China, Russia, India, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran have already offered to promote political reconciliation in Afghanistan. Ironically, Washington itself has been opaque on the role of some nations in stabilising Afghanistan.
America’s failure should come as no surprise if the commander-in-chief spurns the well-intentioned peace efforts by Afghanistan’s neighbours. Trump can learn a lot from his predecessors’ fumbles to sort out the mess.
The writer is a senior freelance journalist based in Peshawar.
Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2017